Why the Peace Corps’ Mission Is Needed Now More Than Ever

On its 60th anniversary, a moment of reckoning arrives for the nation’s globe-trotting volunteers

Peace Corps volunteer Marya Cota-Wilson gives a gardening lesson in Costa Rica in the 1980s. (Getty Images )
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

In March 2020, at the start of Covid-19 lockdowns, as flights were grounded and people around the world sheltered in place, 7,000-odd Peace Corps volunteers serving in 61 nations came home to an uncertain future. Many worried that the Peace Corps might even have to shut down permanently. That hasn’t happened, but the nation’s foremost global volunteer organization has no volunteers in the field for the first time since its founding 60 years ago.

Practicing a uniquely American blend of idealism and realpolitik, the agency was conceived in October 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy made a 2 a.m. campaign speech at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Kennedy, then running for president, challenged 10,000 students assembled outside the Student Union to use their skills to help people around the globe—and spread American goodwill along the way. One thousand students responded by signing a petition volunteering to serve abroad.

The emphasis on peace was earnest, but the backdrop for the new agency was the Cold War. The Soviet Union, Kennedy noted, “had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses...prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” Kennedy established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, less than two months into his presidency, and the first volunteers headed out in August—to Ghana.

Whether or not the Peace Corps managed to counteract Soviet influence, it has sent nearly 250,000 Americans to serve in 142 countries around the world. The number of active volunteers peaked in 1966, when more than 15,000 served in 52 countries. Budget cuts in the 1980s slashed the number of volunteers to around 5,000, and the number has hovered between 7,000 and 8,000 for the past ten years. Volunteers go to every continent except Antarctica, with nearly half today serving in sub-Saharan Africa. The Peace Corps has also deployed volunteers domestically twice: first in 2005, to assist with disaster relief efforts on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, and more recently to help the nationwide federal Covid-19 vaccination effort at community vaccination sites around the country.

A vintage Peace Corps poster
A 1972 poster celebrating the Peace Corps’ tenth anniversary, designed by Patrick Koeller. (Patrick Koeller / West Michigan Graphic Design Archives)

I joined the Peace Corps in 2009, and for 32 months I worked with farmers, entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders in Masindi, in western Uganda, teaching skills such as grant writing and business planning. But a Peace Corps volunteer’s activities extend beyond the office or classroom. Sharing a meal of beans and ebitooke (steamed, mashed plantains), helping my 14-year-old host sister with her English homework and learning the correct way to chop fresh sugar cane were considered vital to my Peace Corps experience. So was showing my neighbor how to make guacamole, watching bootleg DVDs of Nigerian soap operas with my host family and learning dance moves to the latest Ugandan pop music. My neighbor still sends me the occasional WhatsApp message with links to music videos of our favorite songs, a joking reminder of how bad I was at the “Bread and Butter” dance.

I found the work rewarding, not least when I helped a farmers’ cooperative start producing seeds for weather-resistant maize they could sell for higher profit. But I also understand why there’s so much talk among Peace Corps alumni questioning whether the agency’s paternalistic approach—rooted in Cold War animosities and developed long before the internet and cellphones linked remote villages to cutting-edge knowledge systems—still makes sense.

“Our increasingly interconnected world demands global solidarity, not charity, to solve global problems that transcend national borders,” Kul Chandra Gautam, former deputy director of Unicef, said last summer in a speech to the National Peace Corps Association. Gautam, who was taught by Peace Corps volunteers in his native Nepal starting when he was in seventh grade, says it can be “a great organization,” but, like many others, he advocates a more equal relationship between volunteers and their host communities—for instance, giving local communities a greater say in the work volunteers perform, or maybe sending community members to the States for education and training. Glenn Blumhorst, president and chief executive officer of the National Peace Corps Association, agrees, saying the host communities “must drive the work volunteers do.”

Another tradition the Peace Corps says it will update before returning to the field next year is a lack of diversity among volunteers, who in recent years have been overwhelmingly white, female, young and well educated. A more inclusive volunteer corps—with more volunteers from working-class backgrounds and more volunteers of color—would benefit host communities, who would gain access to a greater variety of knowledge and skills; it might also improve America’s reputation overseas, as more people in other nations would encounter the diversity that is such a source of U.S. strength.

Not that there’s a shortage of goodwill. Through my work with the farmers’ cooperative, I met a seed salesman based in Kenya. After the salesman learned I was a Peace Corps volunteer, he didn’t charge the farmers for the seeds he’d provided them, enough to plant several acres. I later asked him why, and he said it was because, decades before, his high school math teacher was a Peace Corps volunteer.

Lending a Hand at Home

Over a century ago a few visionaries launched charities that now collect billions of dollars
By Ted Scheinman

Unlike the Peace Corps, with its Cold War focus on foreign lands, these leading charities were launched to solve problems at home, such as growing poverty and urban crowding, and were founded in the 19th century, amid the moral and spiritual revival sometimes known as the Third Great Awakening. They remain potent symbols of Americans’ generosity, collecting some $7.5 billion in donations in 2019.

1851 • American YMCA

(Getty Images)

The sea captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan made waves for surviving a shipwreck in Antarctica and a pirate attack off the coast of Brazil. But his most lasting legacy came while doing missionary work among the seamen of Boston. Inspired by a London-based group called the Young Men’s Christian Association, founded in 1844, Sullivan launched the first U.S. YMCA in 1851. Today, there are 2,700 YMCAs nationwide.

About Miranda Moore

Miranda Moore writes nonfiction, fiction and poetry and works as an editorial consultant in the Scottish Borders.

Read more from this author
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus